On May 4, 2019, in downtown Cherkasy, a city in central Ukraine, passersby found Vadym Komarov, an investigative reporter with local daily Dzvin, unconscious with severe head injuries indicative of being beaten with a heavy object, according to news reports. Following the assault, the journalist was in a coma until he died on June 20, national information agency UNIAN reported.
The attack took place one day after Komarov posted on Facebook that he planned to publish news on alleged corruption among local authorities in the use of public funds for the construction of a gymnastics complex.
Komarov often reported on alleged corruption among local politicians and officials in Dzvin and on his personal Facebook and YouTube pages, according to CPJ’s review of his reporting. At Dzvin, Komarov covered topics such as alleged official corruption in Cherkasy, a riot in a local prison, and alleged corruption in local land deals.
Sergiy Tomilenko, head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, a trade organization representing the country’s staff and freelance journalists, told CPJ that Komarov had received threats in the past, and that “the only reason for an assault and subsequent death of Komarov was his journalism.”
“He was an inconvenient person for many local politicians. He raised annoying questions about corruption in Cherkasy, raised important topics that resonated in the society,” Tomilenko told CPJ.
The journalist had previously survived an attempt on his life in 2016, when an unidentified person shot at him but missed, according to the BBC.
The day before Komarov was killed, unidentified individuals stole documents relating to a story about the same gymnastics complex from National Union of Journalists Secretary Valeriy Makeyev, according to a Facebook post by Makeyev. CPJ reached Makeyev via phone in 2019 and again by messaging app in 2021 but he declined to comment on the case, citing a pending investigation.
On the day of the attack, the Cherkasy police department issued a statement announcing that it had opened an investigation. On May 5, the case was classified as attempted murder, according to local news reports. Those reports noted that the journalist’s money and cell phone had remained untouched during the attack.
On June 20, following Komarov’s death, national police chief Serhiy Knyazev announced that the case had been reclassified as premeditated murder. A police spokesperson stated that authorities were investigating three possible motives for the attack: Komarov’s journalistic work, a sudden altercation with an unidentified individual, and attempted theft, according to reports, which said that police had questioned over 1,300 people in connection with the case
The same day, the Ukrainian national police released pictures of a suspect in the attack, depicting a tall thin man, with an appeal to the public to help in his identification.
On May 4, 2020, the National Union of Journalists denounced the “complete silence” of police since the opening weeks of the investigation, and called for a public report on the inquiry.
In September 2020 and May 2021, police said that authorities were mainly pursuing the theory that the killing was retaliation for Komarov’s journalism, according to reports and an Interior Ministry press release.
In a June 17, 2021, press conference, the head of the Investigation Department of the National Police’s Cherkasy Region office, Yevhen Rohachov, confirmed that authorities were pursuing that theory, and said the available evidence did not support the idea that he was killed in a sudden altercation or during a robbery, according to an account of the press conference by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.
Rohachov said that the journalistic work in question could include Komarov’s articles alleging illegal actions by businesses and government officials, and said that 62 local government officials had been questioned but their involvement in the case had not been established, according to that account.
At that press conference, Cherkasy Regional Prosecutor Oleksandr Voronin stated that the amount of material currently available “does not make it possible to clearly identify the perpetrator,” according to that report.
At the June 17 press conference and at a separate meeting with Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova and National Union of Journalists representatives, regional prosecution officials stated that the identification of suspects had been hampered by lack of access to materials that Komarov was working on immediately before the attack, according to another report by the journalists’ union.
During that meeting, authorities said that Komarov’s family members had deleted the journalist’s electronic files before police could examine them, on the grounds that they could contain personal images and documents, and that other reliable sources of information about what the journalist was working on were not available, according to that report.
CPJ emailed the National Police of Ukraine in late 2021 for updates and comment, but did not receive any replies.
On December 20, 2021, the office of the prosecutor-general replied to CPJ’s emailed request for updates and comment, saying that the Cherkasy regional prosecutor’s office has taken measures to intensify the pre-trial investigation of Komarov’s murder and that authorities have now questioned over 1,800 individuals in connection with the case, among other measures, but that they were unable to provide further information about the investigation under Ukrainian law.